Data breaches, Chinese hackers, Big Brother, and other reasons to fear a biometric voter ID bill

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“Voters should not have to trade their privacy and biological data in order to participate in democracy.” – Dave Maass, Electronic Frontier Foundation


The perennial push for enacting a mandatory photo voter ID law will hit the New Mexico Legislature very soon, possibly this week (it’s the only major piece of controversial Republican legislation yet to have had a hearing).

Secretary of State Diana Duran made NM’s lack of such a law a centerpiece of her 2014 re-election bid and bills have already been filed that would mandate voters obtain photo identification in order to exercise their democratic rights.

Conservatives have become obsessed with these laws in recent years, making a huge push across many states to enact them. Despite the fact that voter fraud is statistically non-existent and such laws inevitably reduce voter turnout (especially among young people, the elderly, and minorities), the right-wing has made mandatory photo voter ID laws a cornerstone of their governing strategy.

The last thing NM needs is lower voter turnout. Electoral participation in NM’s 2014 general election was among the lowest in history and just a few weeks ago there was a school board election in Hagerman, NM in which not one person voted.

But now one NM Senate Republican has introduced a measure to study the viability of having the state government maintain databases housing citizens’ biometric information (thumbprints, retinal scans, etc.) that would be used in order for them to vote.

Big Brother is watching you

Big Brother is watching you

Senator Bill Payne’s HM 11 requests the Secretary of State study the feasibility of implementing a voter identification system using voters’ biometric information.

Payne’s memorial justifies this study by citing the apocryphal claim that voter fraud is a rampant problem in our elections (see above); that biometrics is used in other countries during elections (see Venezuela); and that modern technology allows for identification based on physical characteristics. Convinced yet?

What o’ what could ever go wrong by allowing the state government to maintain a “data registry system” (Payne’s words) of all NM voters’ biometric information?

Would volunteer poll workers be able to understand and use the technology efficiently? (Maybe) Would such poll workers be subjected to extensive background checks (and other accountability measures) to make sure the data was being used in the intended way? (Hopefully) Would voters be intimidated by voting if they knew this data collection was taking place? (Likely) What would happen if the data was breached, as happens more and more recently? (God help us)

Fingerprint_and_retinal_scanMandatory photo voter ID laws reduce voter participation by adding a cost to voting (the monetary and/or time costs of obtaining the ID), by causing confusion about what’s required in order to vote, and because a significant number of voters simply don’t have the types of ID required by these laws. (See: Gaskins & Iyer, The Challenge of Obtaining Voter Identification, 2012) But Payne’s step would open up such unnecessary voter suppression to a whole host of other people: those afraid of having their biometric information housed in a government-run database.

Payne’s memorial begins to seem like the inevitable next step in the conservative march toward mandatory photo voter ID. First, they want the government to mandate photo identification in order to vote. Next, they want the government to mandate voters give up their most personal physical information in order to do so.


Here’s what Dave Maass of Electronic Frontier Foundation told ThinkProgress about the potential problems (practical and philosophical) in Payne’s bill:

“Voters should not have to trade their privacy and biological data in order to participate in democracy,” Dave Maass, an investigative researcher with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told ThinkProgress.

While Payne is asking the state to look at the potential costs and feasibility, Maass said he knows the initiative would be “very, very expensive” and require more work than the state elections’ department could handle.

“I don’t have a whole lot of confidence in a system that’s so underfunded and so volunteer-driven to begin with,” he said. “You’re going to put upon them these highly technical systems and entrust very sensitive data to this system?”

The idea of taking this data that no one should have -– no one should have a database of every voter’s private biometric material –- but even if you did create that, the ability to secure that and make sure it doesn’t get into the wrong hands — that’s a little more than an elections department is going to be able to figure out,” he said.

Voter fraud is non-existent – a solution without a problem.

Mandatory photo voter ID laws have been unequivocally shown to harm the democratic process by reducing voter turnout and creating barriers to voting for vulnerable populations.

Data breaches are common.

Americans are uncomfortable with government surveillance.

Requiring biometric information in order to vote would “expand state government to new depths” in order to solve a non-existent problem.

Who thinks this is a good idea again?